Are Mixed Martial Arts Ethical for Christians?

As it has done before, the New York Times just covered Mixed Martial Arts.  The article, “The Fight Club Generation,” is well worth reading.

Here’s a snatch:

Evidence that cage fighting has replaced boxing as the combat sport of choice, at least to some men of a certain age, has been quietly mounting for years. The annual pay-per-view audience for Ultimate Fighting Championship matches first surpassed boxing and professional wrestling in 2006, and has continued to rise almost every year since. And among men ages 18 to 34, the sport is fourth in popularity only to baseball, basketball and football, according to research by Scarborough Sports Marketing in New York.

The NYT writer attended the match and came away with this funny impression:

Most audience members attend in support of a specific fighter — a friend, a brother, a trainer, a sensei — so emotions, and testosterone, run high. There is fist pumping, back slapping, shirtless posturing and screams for oddly specific moves (“Get the mount!”). It’s like a boxing match crossbred with WrestleMania, presented in the middle of an Insane Clown Posse concert.

Read the whole thing.

I have spoken out fairly strongly against MMA in the past, and my basic convictions about the sport haven’t changed.  Christians should encourage the development of physical courage and ability in young men, yes.  They should reject pacificism, and they should encourage boys to be adventurous and tough.  But I don’t think that we should tie courage to unnecessary violence.  Courage for a needful aim is good; courage in service to a needless fight is not good, particularly when that fight will cause great damage to the body, much more than is necessary in “manhood training” or whatever you wish to call it.

For that reason, I can’t support MMA, much as readers of this blog know that I advocate a robust brand of full-orbed, Christ-as-warrior manhood.  I do think, though, that the NYT piece is right when it suggests that part of the cultural interest in MMA among men is that there are so few outlets for boys as boys in today’s society.  Many young men don’t grow up hunting, fishing, farming, camping, or even just playing outdoors.  In my sleepy neighborhood in Louisville, there are a number of kids who go outside with the same regularity as their elderly grandparents.  They sit in basement caves, locked in to video games, denizens of the indoors.  A whole world sits outside.  It is not discovered.

So in this light I understand (but still do not endorse) MMA.  It allows men to be men in a physical sense, to get out their aggression and channel it.  Because many boys go to public schools that damp down masculinity and a sense of adventure, they crave outlets of the kind that MMA provides.  I get that.

The challenge before us as Christians is to immerse our boys in the world.  We don’t want them to be jellyfish, to be weak, to be afraid.  We want to develop courage in them, as Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield eloquently said in a Hoover Institution essay.  Our boys should be physical, in the world, exploring, questing, playing.  They need above all to learn their manhood in the school of Christ and to understand from the dawn of their youth that God has given them strength so they can serve, not so they can dominate others.

MMA says something true about men, I think.  You can’t watch a performance like Tom Hardy’s in “Warrior” and not be stirred as a man, for example.  But it is a sport that is in need of Christocentric ethics.  Our capacities for energy and force are not given us to damage others, unless their sin places others in harm’s way.  These capacities are given us for enjoyment, for service to our families, churches, and society, and ultimately, for sacrifice of a profoundly Christlike kind.

(Image: Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times)

  • ianclary

    In the sentence “I have spoken out fairly strongly…” you are missing a crucial word. Are you for or against? :)

  • owenstrachan

    A fairly critical word, yes! Thank you, Ian. I’ve updated the post and declared my true colors.

  • Pingback: A Morning Peacock of Links (3/16) | hobojarpen

  • Ryan Taylor


    Have to disagree with you here. As someone who did Tae Kwon Do for three years and then transitioned into the MMA scene, MMA is much more positive than the spin that is created around it. I did MMA for two years and just gave it up this winter because I no longer have time to accommodate the training.

    One thing you said struck me as peculiar. You state, “But I don’t think that we should tie courage to unnecessary violence. Courage for a needful aim is good; courage in service to a needless fight is not good, particularly when that fight will cause great damage to the body, much more than is necessary in “manhood training” or whatever you wish to call it.”

    The idea of tying courage to unnecessary violence could extend to many of our beloved sports: soccer, football, basketball, boxing. Before you argue, “Wait, how are those violent?”, let me submit a few thoughts for consideration.

    I doubt I get much of an argument on boxing being violent from you. Ever been hit by a sixteen ounce glove? Not much fun. Have you seen recent video on Muhammad Ali? Many boxers take a beating because the gloves offer too much protection. I know that sounds ridiculous, but the repetitive jabs, round after round, create health problems for boxers later on in life.

    Football isn’t much different. Running backs usually retire between 30-32 because of the physical violence that has been inflicted on their bodies. In an ESPN 30 on 30 documentary that aired a couple of years ago, they rolled out a statistic that only 18% of former NFL players live without pain. That is a staggering number to me, and it downright frightens me when I think that my son might want to play football. Even now, Peyton Manning is searching for a new team not because the Colts didn’t want him, but because he had four neck surgeries! Let’s hope that he doesn’t take a hard hit and become paralyzed. Again, you probably wouldn’t argue that football isn’t violent.

    Yet, what about basketball (yes, our beloved sport from Camp Good News days). Did you see the headlines about Greg Oden recently? The poor guy just got waived by the Trailblazers because he’s been injured so often and only played in 82 games. While point guards have a longer career expectancy in the NBA, many big men suffer catastrophic leg injuries like Greg Oden because the post, little man, is a rough place. I don’t even play basketball anymore because I’ve broken my left ankle twice. The continual shoving, jostling, and contending for rebounds is violent in nature. It’s physical force meeting physical force.

    Though we as Christians probably play sports out of a sense of fellowship, community, and competition, the world doesn’t look at sports in that light. The world competes, sadly and too often, to be dominant, for victory, and to demoralize the competition. Don’t believe me? See Rex Ryan.

    Let me bring you back to the quote I used earlier. You state, “courage in service to a needless fight is not good, particularly when that fight will cause great damage to the body, much more than is necessary in “manhood training” or whatever you wish to call it.”

    Let me submit that pretty much all sports needlessly put our bodies in danger of great physical damage. I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t play sports, but rather the idea that injuries should be expected when competing in athletic activities. The same is true about MMA. In fact, MMA’s injury ratio is pretty low when compared to sports like football and basketball. Fights often end in submissions (the most common way for a fight to end) with little more than bruises having been sustained. While I never stepped into the ring (the whole “I have a wife and kid” ideal kept me from taking to the canvas), I still went through a ton of training and sparring that left me with no lasting physical problems. I wish I could say the same about my ankle and basketball.

    Lastly, you state, “They (young men) need above all to learn their manhood in the school of Christ and to understand from the dawn of their youth that God has given them strength so they can serve, not so they can dominate others.” I agree with you wholeheartedly on this statement. We cannot, as Christian men, become fixated upon the concept of dominance. Where I’d diverge from your view is that this fixation on dominance isn’t only prevalent in MMA, but all sports as I mentioned earlier. With that in mind, again, I concede the point to you. We need to teach our youth that “God has given them strength so they can serve”. We are made to be victors and winners through submission to Christ’s will in our daily lives. You make reference to the movie Warrior, which I have seen. While those that compete in sports should always strive to have a warrior like spirit that is determined to give all his physical effort for a cause, so we and our youth must become warrior-minded in carrying the Gospel of Christ’s love and work on the cross to the world. If you have time, I think this Audio Adrenaline song demonstrates my point:

    While I would never endorse a Hunger Games / gladiatorial / Richard Connell-esque The Most Dangerous Game type of death sport, I am perfectly fine with athletics that push physical limitations. Thanks for your thoughts, though. Sorry this response is so long, but I wanted to argue the opposite view. Hope it is convincing, man.

  • Jeff Wiesner

    Where is the line to be drawn? Do other violent sports such as hockey and American football deserve similar scrutiny?

  • henrybish


    I think one key difference that is overlooked is that the sport of MMA is about winning by *hurting the other guy*. This cannot be said of most other sports you cite – where injuries are just unintended side effects of trying to win by scoring points rather than by hurting someone.

    And yes that principle would apply to boxing too. I think the main issue is not so much the reckless nature of the sport but the malicious nature of the sport. Although I agree a judgement call does need to be made about the recklessness of the sport.

  • Ryan Taylor

    A couple things I’d bring up in response to your post. First, did you mean that boxing is of a malicious nature or that it isn’t? I’d say it’s made from the same fabric of MMA. While one goes into a fight seeking to score as many points as possible, the ultimate goal is to score a KO. Was this what you also meant when bringing up boxing? Or did you mean it isn’t malicious?

    Secondly, if we are labeling MMA as malicious, we need to at least through in hockey and football. The whole purpose of football is to drive the other team to the ground so that they don’t score points. The Saints for the last couple of seasons were keeping a pool for guys that injured other team’s players. Players routinely trash talk about how they are going to hurt their opponents. Are we giving football a pass because it’s an American tradition? In hockey, fights are routine and break out not because they are physically testing their strength and combat skills, but because two guys are angry with each other.

    The only sport I’d concede to you as not having a malicious nature at it’s heart that I mentioned in my previous post is basketball. You’re right. Basketball injuries are due to mistake. Yet, when inspecting the sports we watch as a society, I think we have to admit that MMA isn’t the only sport with a mean streak.

    • henrybish

      Hi Ryan,

      Yes I meant boxing is malicious – disqualifying MMA would also disqualify boxing. Although I think that padded gloves tends to make it a bit different.

      What you describe with the Saints is obviously malicious also, but that is not integral to the nature of the sport – you can play football without keeping a pool for guys that injure others and just want to hurt them. Ditto for hockey, you can stop the malicious behaviour yet still play the game, I don’t see how you can in MMA. That is the key distinction.

      Regarding injuries, I think we should generally try to be responsible with what sports we partake in. Eg the extreme motocross stuff (Brian Deegan) seems pretty lethal. I’m not sure of your earlier assessment of injuries in football vs MMA. But I would say that ‘driving the other team to the ground’ is hardly the same as punching someone in the face. (I don’t think I would class wrestling as malicious btw.)

      Some level of risk has to be fine (you are at risk walking down the street) but you have to make a judgement call. I think many of these judgement calls should probably be left to Christian liberty. Maybe in some instances it is worth taking these risks to your body for the sake of witnessing the Gospel to others in those sports. And conceivably it may be possible to practice MMA without being malicious. Though I really doubt it. But just training for it may well be fine, I don’t know the details of what goes on though.

  • owenstrachan

    Good conversation going on here.

    Ryan raised a number of good questions, and I think I agree with what Henry has said. In hockey, football, boxing and MMA, violence is a crucial part of the game. It is not in basketball. This is not to say that basketball is a low-intensity game, because it is not. But in basketball, to make contact is to draw a foul. That’s not the case in hockey, football, boxing and MMA. Of course, MMA and boxing are the two sports that are most violent in this list. The entire sport consists of doing violence to your competitor, which cannot be said of hockey or football. That, in my mind, is highly problematic.

    For that reason, I personally couldn’t allow my son to box or do MMA (as a sport, not as a workout that didn’t involve competitive fighting). I don’t think I would allow him to play football or hockey, either, not because I’m a wuss, but because the level of violence in these games is high, and the precious few studies that have appeared on this subject have confirmed the very risky nature of these games. Concussions are hugely significant, far more than we even know, I think.

    So as I said in the blog, I want my boy to be physical, to get to play, and to enjoy sports. He may get hurt in doing so. That’s okay. I’m sure he will. But I will try to steer him to sports that don’t place him in great danger on a regular basis. I don’t hold this principle from explicitly biblical grounds, and I don’t suggest that Christians who allow their boys to play high-contact sports are necessarily sinning. This is a wisdom issue, and we can differ on it.

  • Ryan Taylor

    Henry and Owen,

    Henry, I agree with you that this is probably boils down to Christian liberty. It is possible to train in MMA without ever jumping into the ring. I never felt morally conflicted because I, nor the other guys I trained with, were out to hurt each other during training. For me, the training was purely to learn how to protect myself wisely. I wanted to learn Jui-Jitsu so that I know how to wrap a guy up without hurting him or myself. That was the side of the sport that appealed to me. When we trained stand up, we only landed punches at about 20-30%. Again, it was training, and knowing how to play defense is a reasonable thing to do. Plus, the health benefits and cardio were amazing.

    Owen, like you, I probably wont steer my son into football, hockey, or MMA. While I show my son the things I’ve learned, I probably won’t advocate him getting into the ring. And besides, basketball will always remain my first love when it comes to sports. He’ll grow up, hopefully, cheering on the Celtics.

    • owenstrachan

      I want to make sure, at this point in the sport’s history, that this be a wisdom issue. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make a serious case against something based on our understanding of it in light of Christian Scripture and theology.

      Ryan, you’ve made several good points. For all that I said about basketball–injury being penalized, for example–I do think that the sport can get too rough. I think I want my son to play it, but I will need to count that cost. We’re always walking a fine line as conscionable parents; we want very much to protect our children, even as we want to prepare them for life in a fallen world. I don’t want my son to tear his Achilles tendon as I did; I don’t want him to get hurt on the court. Though I think MMA is beyond the pale, I would say in light of your comments that yes, I will have some tough questions to answer in coming days. So will all parents who involve their children in sports.

      But as I said, I have no personal problem with a boxing workout or MMA workout so long as it’s not violent toward another person. I could probably use such a workout, in fact…

  • Pingback: Gospel Headlines: 3/19/2012 « Greg Gibson's Blog